Monday, May 03, 2004

Bush, President and CEO of EB, Inc.

Kevin Drum makes an interesting point in a recent post at the Wahington Monthly. He compares Bush to the sort of mediocre CEO who hasn't the skill or experience to make his plans come to fruition.

I like the analogy. I think it apt, and fits with Bush's record as corporate executive. There is an additional element present which Kevin doesn't mention. This most corporate of Administrations doesn't 'do' strategy. Thaey don't 'do' advance planning. They 'do' crisis management, corporate-style. And therein lies a problem.

Corporations are the great externalizers, and their methods for dealing with crisis and disaster reflect that tendency. All the corporate crisis management literature emphasizes overarching goals for managing crisis which are incompatible with the concept of governance.

Corporations, when faced with emergency or crisis, do not investigate the causes; they avoid knowing causes so that they do not acquire legal duties to prevent problems. They do not take responsibility; they deny all responsibility, even if their culpability is obvious and they are forced to take some sort of remedial action. They do not take action by their own initiative; they remain passive if possible, shuffling personnel, changing organizational structure, communicating with the press their views (read spin) on the crisis, and acting only when forced to do so and when the cost of continued passivity exceeds the cost of action. They do not explore options; they buy expertise. They do not prepare for future crisis; they limit their exposure to risk or buy insurance. They do not remedy the consequences of disaster themselves; they contract out the work unless such work is in their core competency. They do not examine how or why they failed to prevent disaster, or explore how their actions contributed to it; doing so only leaves a discoverable paper trail which could be used against them in the future.

In short, corporations handle crisis exactly like the Bush Administration; their first impulse is to simply hide problems or to deny their existence. Failing that, they arrange for someone else to take the blame. "Fixing" a problem to these people means getting it out of the news cycle, and delegating finding a remedy by delegating the task to the cheapest contractor, both in financial and political terms.

The corporate crisis management model works to limit exposure of the corporation to the consequences of crisis. The model preserves public image. The model preserves shareholder equity. The model allows the corporation to assess risk and prepare for it in the future. The model externalizes costs to the greatest possible extent. What the model doesn't do is avoid future crises. The model doesn't take responsibility for crisis, even if the corporation allowed the crisis by lack of planning or institutional learning from prior crises.

Of course, by now you see the flaw in using this approach in government. There is no one to externalize to. There is no one to take up the slack. There is no one to bail you out, and no one who is going to clean up the mess. When you are the government, as Truman aptly declared, "the buck stops here." Fundamentally, the Bush Administration acts like a corporation: spinning, dodging, reorganizing, contracting, and delegating like mad in a effort to avoid being seen holding the buck. It is as if their stock options would devalue if they were to be held accountable by the market for their performance. Ah, yes. Now you see it don't you? The election is Bushco's IPO and the only time they are answerable to shareholders (voters). They are rightfully terrified that the shareholders are going to elect a new Board of Directors who will purge the incompetent management.

The Bushies are obsessed with trying to save their asses by externalizing the responsibility of a sovereign, because they fail to understand that the role of the government is to be responsible.They can't understand that voters fundamentally want a government that accepts responsibility. They want authority without responsibility. This is, of course, fundamentally incompatible with the American system of governance. Authority without responsibility to the governed is autocracy, not democracy. This is the reason why the Bush Administration's actions feel so authoritarian, not just because their policies are unpopular. Unpopular can be accepted, but because the Bushies insist on not being held responsible for anything unless they choose to be. Of course, there are times when every Administration wishes to avoid responsibility, because public opinion or confidence might turn against it, but the Bushies have elevated avoidance of responsibility to a high art. In fact, it is the unifying theme of the Bush Administration.

More than anything else, it is the Bushies' style of crisis management, which demands freedom from responsibility, that marks the Bush Administration as corporate to the core. Bush is President and CEO of Executive Branch, Inc., but a corporation is incapable of ruling a democratic electorate. It may require some time on the collective learning curve before citizens get completely fed up with the new corporate ruling class which Bush perfectly typifies, but inevitably, they will.


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